Nanni Balestrini’s novella Sandokan, in English translation from Melville House, tells the story of the rise of the Camorra crime syndicate in the small, poverty-stricken cities around Naples. Balestrini’s unnamed narrator occupies a fascinating insider-outsider perspective: one one hand, he, unlike many of his peers, does not join the gang, or “clan,” as its called–in fact, their behavior repulses him. On the other hand, he’s a native of the small town where Francesco Schiavone (aka Sandokan), Antonio Bardellino, and their henchman rule mercilessly, an eye-witness to the brutality and inhumanity of organized crime. The narrator is a sensitive young man who delineates clearly how the crime cartel was able to achieve such economic prosperity and power in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, detailing the various rackets the clan imposed upon the town, like stealing elections, peddling drugs, and manipulating the agribusiness that is the main source of income for average Neapolitan peasants. The narrator also explores why these small towns fall so easily into the terror of organized crime. The main reason: boredom stemming from little or nothing to do.
Balestrini’s narrator’s description of the Camorra is systematic, detailing the awful history and brutal practices of the syndicate in spare, concrete terms. His explications of the clan’s violence is not so much thrilling as it is ugly, as the narrator always shows how “normal people” (his words) are cheated, killed, or otherwise harmed by the Camorra. The narrator’s tone is often journalistic but never clinical; he always shows what’s at stake for the “normal people,” how they are affected by these crimes. At times the narrator is wryly funny, a tone that results in large part from his observation that the townspeople, the people he grew up around, begin to normalize the violence. It becomes part of their daily lives and affects them so directly that it becomes casual, and the sensitive narrator is one of only a few not to bow to it, ignore it, or take part in it–yet the violence and crime is so overwhelming that to live with it is to live with absurdity. Balestrini employs a punctuation-free rhetorical style in Sandokan that captures the breathless energy and frustration of the narrator. While many readers might balk at the lack of commas, periods, or semi-colons, I found the technique quite liberating. It enhances the immediacy of the narrator’s voice, the rushed sense of importance to his tale. It also promotes sustained readings of the text–I read most of Sandokan in three enthralled sittings.
Sandokan has its cinematic twin in the 2008 film Gomorra, directed by Matteo Garrone. The film, like the book, illustrates the affect that crime has on a range of “normal people,” mostly occupants of a housing project outside of Naples. As in Sandokan, the ordinary citizens find that they have no choice but to choose between sides as an absurd, petty gang war ravages their already decimated landscape. Where Balestrini’s punctuation-free rhetoric allows readers closer access to his narrator’s pathos-driven story, Garrone lets his camera wander freely over the grim landscape without ever imposing any clear narrative structure. It is not until the film’s final third that the five disparate stories he tells coalesce, and even then, it remains unclear who is on whose side. What is clear is that the violence and crime is quickly stealing–and killing–another generation.
In an age where violence is sensationalized and glamorized, particularly in gangster films and TV shows (do I really need to list them?), Sandokan and Gomorra both lay bare the Darwinian cost of crime. In both narratives, the violence is mundane and inescapable, meaningless yet awful, and very, very dark. Neither narrative is didactic in the least–or even hopeful, for that matter–but their is an implicit suggestion that if only there were some alternative to the Camorra–libraries, social clubs, movie houses–there might be another prospect for the young people in this area.
I highly recommend both Sandokan and Gomorra. As an end note, I’d love to see more of Nanni Balestrini’s work come into English translation, perhaps via Antony Shugaar and Melville House, who’ve done a lovely job here.
[Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this review in January of 2010]
1. Listening to someone’s dreams is usually pretty boring. Reading about someone’s dreams is even worse.
Except when it’s not, of course.
2. Perec, describing his dream journal La Boutique Obscure:
I thought I was recording the dreams
I was having; I have realized that it was
not long before I began having dreams
only in order to write them.
These dreams—overdreamed, overworked,
overwritten—what could I then
expect of them, if not to make them into
texts, a bundle of texts left as an o)ering
at the gates of that “royal road” I still
must travel with my eyes open?
4. The dreams in La Boutique Obscure, rendered in fairly concrete prose (Perec avoids analysis), were recorded between 1968-1972.
5. I’ve been slowly reading the essays and riffs and lists collected in Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces over the past few years. There’s something wonderful about picking the book up at random and finding some little quip or note (or entire essay) that illuminates some fascinating aspect of what we might initially take to be a dull topic.
La Boutique Obscure works the same way.
7. Many of the elements that we see in Dream No. 24 / “Cats” run throughout the collection: Friends, doors, streets, houses, apartments, disasters, performances, lists, etc. etc. Note also Perec’s refusal to analyze or contextualize or otherwise attempt to make meaning out of the dream.
8. My favorite pieces in the collection are the ones that convey more plot—adventures, chases, fragments of films and plays—but there’s also pleasure in Perec’s shortest pieces, which often resemble imagist poems—like “The stone bridge”:
9. A good review, a responsible review, might try to situate Perec’s dream journal against his role as Oulipo gamesmaster, or set the entries against Perec’s biography, or maybe compare it to other dream journals. Or maybe even try to tackle it as a novel, or a novelish book.
10. But I’m more interested in the aesthetic experience of reading La Boutique Obscure. The book is fun, distracting, and divergent. Perec’s refusal to interpret his dreams leaves plenty of space for the reader to make his own connection—and if need be, interpretations—but to be clear, the same banal anxieties that inform our own dreams are what Perec traces the contours of in La Boutique Obscure. The book’s greatest strength is its imagery, its evocation of place, space, movement. To fault it for lacking depth would be to entirely miss the point.
11. Reading La Boutique Obscure provides another nagging reminder that I have yet to read Life A User’s Manual.
What are the problems of Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”?
This question seems like a bad starting place.
Let me share an anecdote instead.
—I was in the tenth grade the first time I read “Bartleby.”
At the time, I thought I was a teacher’s dream—a sharp reader, someone who loved English class, someone with opinions about the texts we read. Lots and lots of opinions. In retrospect, I realize that I was a nightmare for poor Ms. Hall, a wonderful teacher who I’m sure dreaded our meetings (there were like 15 guys in the class, all unruly).
Simply put, I didn’t want to do things her way.
So she gave me a copy of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories and told me to read “Bartleby,” suggesting that there was something I might learn from it.
I don’t know if backfired is exactly the right term for the results of this experiment. I do know that “Bartleby” offered me a brilliant retort—a literary allusion!—to refuse any task I didn’t feel like undertaking in 10th grade English:
“I would prefer not to.”
—While we’re here—
“I would prefer not to”
So, this is clearly one of the problems of “Bartleby,” if not the core problem condensed into one utterance: Why would? Why the conditional?
Consider, vs. I prefer not to, a constative (or maybe even performative) utterance.
But Bartleby “would prefer not to.”
Contrast this with the imperative must that the narrator employs:
At the expiration of that period, I peeped behind the screen, and lo!
Bartleby was there.
I buttoned up my coat, balanced myself; advanced slowly towards him, touched his shoulder, and said, “The time has come; you must quit this place; I am sorry for you; here is money; but you must go.”
“I would prefer not,” he replied, with his back still towards me.
He remained silent.
Now I had an unbounded confidence in this man’s common honesty. He had frequently restored to me sixpences and shillings carelessly dropped upon the floor, for I am apt to be very reckless in such shirt-button affairs. The proceeding then which followed will not be deemed extraordinary.
“Bartleby,” said I, “I owe you twelve dollars on account; here are thirty-two; the odd twenty are yours.—Will you take it?” and I handed the bills towards him.
These brief lines perhaps serve to summarize Melville’s tale.
We see here the basic plot—our titular scrivener will not leave the lawyer’s office after weeks of refusing (although refusing is not quite the right word) to work.
We also see here what I take to be the theme of “Bartleby,” the strange ethical position Bartleby’s (conditional) would prefer not to places the narrator’s (imperative) must set against the moral backdrop of do unto others: namely, an impossible ethical position for a Wall Street lawyer especially and most of us in general.
And “Bartleby,” as you’ll no doubt recall, is in some ways Melville trying to work out the problems of Matthew 25:35-39—
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
Perhaps our narrator tries to do these things—tries to feed and clothe and help this stranger Bartleby—but he can’t. Because Bartleby won’t give him an agency to relate to.
Because Bartleby’s utterance “I would prefer not to” denies the performative or constantive or declarative—indeed, it suspends or disrupts its own conditionality, the relation of the subject to its predicate verb.
Or consider one of Bartleby’s only other lines: “What is wanted?” His grammar again suspends agency, disrupts the notion of a stable I (let alone objective case me) that the narrator can interface with, dictate to, interrogate, see his own narcissistic reflection in).
—Hang on though, I was telling an anecdote. It was about the first time I read “Bartleby,” when I was fourteen or fifteen. This is the book:
I stole it of course, or never returned it. Yes, that’s duct tape on its side. It is more or less falling apart. Here’s the back, barcode and all.
Over the years, like many readers, I returned many times to “Bartleby,” reading it again in high school, then in college, then in grad school. I read it unassigned too, of course—when I read Kafka and it recalled itself to me, and when I read Moby-Dick for the first time. I read it when compelled. And then I read it with my own students. (I read most of the other stuff in the collection too, of course — Billy Budd and then later (why so much later?!) Benito Cereno).
I scrawled through so much of the book that my annotations are basically worthless, virtually everything underlined or circled:
So we butt up against the problems of “Bartleby”—the problems of interpretation. How to figure an eponymous “hero” who is no more than a phantom, a trace, a lack? How to hash out a narrator who presents himself in relatively admirable terms and yet is so clearly an ethical failure? Why oh why would Bartleby prefer not to? Is the story a tragedy or a comedy? Does it present a world with rules, codes, ethics, or is all absurd here—nihilistic even? Is Bartleby a Christ figure? An ascetic monk? A ghost? Is the story just about Melville’s own anger over the poor reception of Pierre? How much of contemporary transcendentalist thought can we find in the story?
The kind people of Melville House were sporting enough to send a copy of “Bartleby” my way. The book is part of their HybridBooks project; these books offer “digital illuminations” along with traditional (uh, paper) books.
I’d requested a HybridBook—any one of them, really—because I now read about half the time on a Kindle Fire—so I was particularly interested in what a “hybrid” had to offer. What is the reading experience like?
First, the book itself is part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series—beautiful, minimal design with French flaps. I read it on my porch the afternoon it arrived, enjoying its pristine, white, unmarked pages. Then, I checked out the “Digital Illuminations.”
The illuminations are available in several device-specific options, all easy to download with the QRC that comes with the book. I read most of the illuminations on my Kindle, but I also put them on my iPhone and my laptop. I had originally intended this post to be specifically about the digital illuminations, but hell, “Bartleby” is just too damn freighted a read for me at this point. Anyway, there’s a lot of good stuff in there, including “The Transcendentalist” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, selections from Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Priestly, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” and several excerpts from Melville himself, including letters, other books, and reviews. What I found must, uh, illuminating was “Of Some of the Sources of Poetry Amongst Democratic Nations” from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. There are also illustrations, including a map; there’s even a recipe for ginger nuts. I wish that MH had included a digital copy of the book though. From a practical, concrete standpoint, I found it easier to switch between the free public domain version of “Bartleby” on my Kindle and MH’s illuminations than it would have been to pick up the physical book.
Now, to shift back (perhaps):
Do the digital illuminations help to answer or solve or address some of the problems of “Bartleby,” some of the issues posed above?
—I suppose the hedging answer is yes and no.
The additional material illuminates some of the philosophical, political, historical, and even personal context for “Bartleby.” The material is edited with minimal intrusion, but with enough explication to clearly connect the various selections to Melville’s story. If I’m reading with my teacher hat on (this is a metaphor; there is no literal hat), I’d say you probably couldn’t do better than what Melville House has put together here. The digital illuminations provide a strong foundation for an informed reading, a range of texts that speak (obliquely or otherwise) to “Bartleby.”
Does it all add up to a deeper or richer understanding of “Bartleby”?
—Well. No. And then no.
I mean, would we want a series of essays that would provide the missing pieces that would allow us to puzzle out “Bartleby”? Could we even trust such pieces, let alone trust ourselves to trust such pieces? Isn’t this strange uncertainty why “Bartleby” endures—and endures apart from Moby-Dick or Billy Budd, strange texts themselves, but also not nearly as confounding?
“Bartleby” simultaneously wriggles and plays dead; it burns with apparent wit but then reminds us that we might not be in on the joke. It is Kafkaesque thirty years before Kafka was even born. It shakes off its allegorical idiom the minute we think we might limn its contours. It makes us read it again because we cannot pin it down.
—But maybe you want to pin it down, tickle it, torture it, make it solve its problems (or at least respond, damn it!).
And maybe I claimed that “Bartleby” was about something—that it was about ethical relations, about duty to one’s fellows—especially when a fellow isn’t a fellow but rather the trace of a fellow, the idea of a fellow, a ghost.
So, look, here’s a take on it:
The narrator—let’s call him Lawyer—Lawyer, see he’s a dick, in the parlance of our times. He’s a dick because he doesn’t know that he’s a dick, which is one of the constituting factors of the ontological state ofbeing a dick. He also does not want to see himself as being a dick (this is another factor in the ontological state of being a dick). He wants to see himself as a goodguy, this Wall Street dickhead, but Bartleby won’t let him do that. Bartleby won’t even let him see himself at all: Bartleby doesn’t reflect back. He prefers not to.
Our Lawyer, see, he’s all buttoned up, he’s snug (these are his words). He tells us upfront that he possesses “a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best”; he repeatedly points out the way that people are “useful” to him (or to others). He sees no possibility of an ethics outside of usefulness; on top of that, he cannot see that he cannot see any possibility of an ethics based on anything but “usefulness” (or the negative economy of obstruction figured in Bartleby).
And ah Bartleby, ah humanity: One time model employee, once apparently free from the eccentricities that plague the Lawyer’s other scriveners, Turkey and Nippers. Machinelike.
Bartleby mechanically completes large quantities of copies without comment or complaint. But when asked to simply read in unison with Lawyer and his scriveners, Bartleby replies: “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby will not read with others—he is literally not on the same page as his colleagues.
Lawyer confronts Bartleby with his noncompliance; Bartleby repeats his mantra. Fuck mantra though because it’s not a mantra. It’s only repeated for Lawyer, to Lawyer, really, who can’t schematize/name/pin down Bartleby’s response. In fact, I would prefer not to so startles Lawyer that he says he’s “unmanned” by the words. So he rationalizes Bartleby’s odd response, internalizes it, paraphrases it, if you like.
And then Bartleby ceases to even do his copying work. Oh the anarchy! But wait, there’s not even anarchy. There’s not even protest. There’s just big nothing. But not even big nothing—instead the smallest nothing (which proves that big nothing is possible).
So Lawyer attempts to “help” Bartleby. Lawyer believes doing so is his “Christian duty.” And to know that this duty has been met, Lawyer needs Bartleby to be his echo. But Bartleby’s I prefer not to denies this narcissistic exchange. He empties his I of ego (shades of Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball).
Confused, Lawyer tries to pay off Bartleby. When that doesn’t work, Lawyer actually packs up and moves to a new office. But even here he can’t cut off Bartleby. The office’s landlord comes to Lawyer to remove Bartleby.
And when Bartleby refuses to leave the office he is taken to “the Tombs”—prison.
Here, Lawyer tries to provide comfort for Bartleby (hearken ye back to Matthew 25:35-39). He arranges for Bartleby to receive good food in the prison. Bartleby prefers not to eat though, and dies curled up in the fetal position during a visit by Lawyer.
Lawyer is the first reader of Bartleby. But like many readers of “Bartleby,” he is confused.
Lawyer’s confusion results from his need for safety—for ease, for comfort, for a snug, buttoned-upness—and that safety is bought through an affirmation of first-person experience: namely, in the affirmation of the self in the other. That security is bought through assimilating another person’s first-person perspective. But Bartleby is empty of I, of self, of ego.
Bartleby would prefer not to: He will not be ventriloquized: He will not echo: He will not read from the same script: He will not be “of use,” as Lawyer puts it.
So Bartleby dissipates and dissolves: He goes down in the Tombs: a ghost, and impossibility, presence coupled with absence.
— And the epilogue:
We all recall the epilogue, yes?
Lawyer offers up “one little item of rumor,” a morsel, a “vague report . . . that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington.” The idea tears the narrator up inside: “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?”
For Lawyer, Bartleby is a dead letter, a failed letter.
Did Melville worry that “Bartleby” would be a failed letter? That it would not find an audience? That his work would not be delivered? If he did, it seems too then that Bartleby’s negations foreclose or reject this concern. Not sure of how to wrap up this riff, I’ll retreat to the safety of my title.
We find the final problems (in basic narrative chronology, that is) of “Bartleby” in its final line. Has Lawyer learned from his experience? Can he empathize, finally feel something for Bartleby beyond the confines of a perceived ethical duty? Is Bartleby a place holder for all humanity? Or is Bartleby in opposition to humanity? What does it mean—-
Bobbi Lurie’s Grief Suite, a slim collection of poems that seem to be mostly about death and loss. Love the woodcut cover, which Ms. Lurie made herself. I read most of Grief Suite last week and found it moving if bewildering. I’m not sure how to review a book of poetry. I have no idea.
The Book of Khalid by Ameen Rihani is part of Melville House’s Neversink line; it’ll get a Spring release. I read a bit the other night. Strange and romantic.
Joe Dunthorne’s Wild Abandon is set on a crumbling Welsh commune. Dunthorne’s Submarine was adapted into a film last year by Richard Ayoade. I didn’t see the film. Anyway, I usually thumb through the first few pages of every review copy that shows up and try to shuffle the book into a certain stack; I wound up reading way more of Wild Abandon than I had initially expected. The first 50 pages are good—flawed but good—and it seems like a smart, funny novel that will appeal to readers who like smart, funny novels.
Sorry that my descriptions today were so lame (lamer than usual). I’m tired.
The good people at Melville House, debut The Neversink Library this week, a line of international titles that have been overlooked, neglected, and under-appreciated, many languishing out of print for years. I was pleased as punch to get three from the fall line up (another Neversink title coming out this Fall is a new edition of Karel Capek’s War with the Newts, covered by Biblioklept affiliate Noquar just a few weeks ago). Pics of the titles below—you can see how handsome and unified the design is here.
Georgi Vladimov’s Faithful Ruslan—
Set in a remote Siberian depot immediately following the demolition of one of the gulag’s notorious camps and the emancipation of its prisoners, Faithful Ruslan is an embittered cri de oeur from a writer whose circumstances obliged him to resist the violence of arbitrary power. “Every writer who writes anything in this country is made to feel he has committed a crime,” Georgi Vladimov said. Dissident, he said, is a word that “they force on you.” His mother, a victim of Stalin’s anti-Semitic policy, had been interred for two years in one of the camps from which Vladimov derived the wrenching detail of Faithful Ruslan. The novel circulated in samizdat for more than a decade, often attributed to Solzhenitsyn, before its publication in the West led to Vladimov’s harassment and exile.
A starving stray, tortured and abandoned by the godlike “Master” whom he has unconditionally loved, Ruslan and his cadre of fellow guard dogs dutifully wait for the arrival of new prisoners—but the unexpected arrival of a work party provokes a climactic bloodletting. Fashioned from the perceptions of an uncomprehending animal, Vladimov’s insistently ironic indictment of the gulag spirals to encompass all of Man’s inexplicable cruelty.
The President by Georges Simenon—
At 82, the former premier lives in alert and suspicious retirement— self exile—on the Normandy coast, writing his anxiously anticipated memoirs and receiving visits from statesman and biographers. In his library is the self-condemning, handwritten confession of the premier’s former attaché, Chalamont, hidden between the pages of a sumptuously produced work of privately printed pornography—a confession that the premier himself had dictated and forced Chalamont to sign. Now the long-thwarted Chalamont has been summoned to form a new coalition in the wake of the government’s collapse. The premier alone possesses the secret of Chalamont’s guilt, of his true character—and has publicly vowed: “He’ll never be Premier as long as I’m alive . . . Nor when I’m dead, either.”
Inspired by French Premier Georges Clemenceau, The President is a masterpiece of psychological suspense and a probing account of the decline of power.
I think this is the one I’ll dip into first: The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W.H. Davies—
An untutored Welsh tramp who became a popular poet acclaimed by the conservative Georgians and the vanguard Ezra Pound alike, W. H. Davies surprised his contemporaries with the unlikeliest portrait of the artist as a young man ever written.
After a delinquent childhood Davies renounced home and apprenticeship and at twenty-two sailed to America—the first of more than a dozen Atlantic crossings, often made by cattle boat. From 1893 to 1899 he was schooled by the hard men of the road, disdaining regular work and subsisting by begging. Crossing Canada to join the “Klondyke” gold rush, Davies fell while hopping a train. His foot was crushed and his leg amputated. “All the wildness had been taken out of me,” Davies wrote, “and my adventures after this were not of my own seeking.”
Praised by Osbert Sitwell for his “primitive splendour and directness,” Davies evokes the beauty and frontier violence of turn-of-the-century America in prose that George Bernard Shaw commended to “literary experts for its style alone.” The insurgent wanderlust that found an American voice in Jack London and Jack Kerouac is expressed here in a raucous true adventure story by the man Shaw called “the incorrigible Supertramp who wrote this amazing book.”
The good folks at Melville House want to duel with you. They’re publishing five novellas, all called The Duel, and they want you to make a trailer for the books. You can win books and “underground fame,” which I’m sure won’t be fleeting (in any case, winning all 42 titles in their Art of the Novella series is nothing to sneeze at). Full details at Moby Lives.
Lars Iyer’s first novel Spurious (Melville House) is by turns, witty, sad, and profound, and garnered serious acclaim on its release earlier this year. Spurious originated in a blog of the same name. There are two sequels on the way—Dogma should be on shelves in early 2012, and Exodus the year after. Lars teaches philosophy at Newcastle University (so it’s no wonder that Spurious reads like a discursive philosophy course by way of the Marx brothers). Lars was kind enough to talk to Biblioklept in depth about his work and writing. In addition to his teaching, writing, and blogging, you will also find Lars on Twitter.
Biblioklept: Your novel Spurious began as a blog and then was published by Melville House, a thriving indie publisher that also began life as a blog. At a recent talk you gave at the HowTheLightGetsIn philosophy and music festival, you discuss the freedom blogging allows for writers to develop their “legitimate strangeness.” Why is “legitimate strangeness” important for writers, and how does blogging help facilitate it?
Lars Iyer: Sometimes it is necessary to depart. Sometimes it is necessary to leave it all behind. That’s how I understood the act of blogging, back when I started Spurious, the blog which shares thesame name as the novel.
As someone who had made some progress as an academic – a journey which implies valuable training as well as compromise and despair – I thought a kind of exodus was necessary, from existing forms of published writing. Leave it all behind!, I told myself. Leave the Egypt of introductory books and academic journals and edited collections behind. Leave the slave-drivers behind, and the sense you have of being a slave. Leave capitalism and capitalist relations behind. Leave behind any sense of the importance of career and advancement. Leave behind those relationships that are modelled on investment and return.
Sometimes a kind of solitude is necessary. You need to be alone, to regather your forces, to marshall your strength. But what is really necessary is a solitude in community. You’re on your own, depending on your own resources. But your solitude is lightened: because you know that there are others like you, who have likewise expelled themselves from captivity; because you know that others share your sense of disgust and self-disgust, that they too have gone out to the desert to do battle with the demons sent by capitalism into each of our souls; because there are others, like you, who see writing as both scourge and liberation, others who see it as a spiritual trial, others looking to destroy who they were and be reborn, and to keep themselves in rebirth.
In the end, the desert is paradise, and the world the blogger has left behind, with its whips and fleshpots, is the real desert.
Cultivate your legitimate strangeness: that was my mantra. ‘Cultivate’, because it is a struggle, a kind of asceticism. To drive the demons out, you have to know that they are there. A kind of self-knowledge is necessary – not the petty narcissism we find in the ‘misery memoir’, but a growing awareness of those forces that have constituted you, that have made you what you are. ‘Your legitimate strangeness’: ‘Your’, because it is yours, your space, the person you are, that you have become, even as you might alter this space, remake it. ‘Legitimate’ – that part of you that is not yet subsumed by capitalism, that free part of yourself that is not a slave. ‘Strangeness’ – because it must appear strange to the slaves and their masters, to everyone around you.
Why is this important to the writer? Some of us write because of our alienation. We have had no one to speak to, no friends, no conversations. There was no one around. Thoreau went to the woods to find himself. We went to our rooms. We went to literature, and philosophy, without knowing anything of literature and philosophy. We worked on our own.
There is something pathetic about this. Shouldn’t we have been fighting the world instead? Shouldn’t we have been ready on the barricades? But there were no barricades. There was no solidarity. We belonged to nothing, and had gone a little mad, a little reclusive, from belonging to nothing.
In one sense, since we lacked education, lacked culture, since our world was not one which valued the ideas and writers that we came to, our exodus was pathetic. We were imitators, play-pretending at being what we are not. We’d come too late; the party was over. We stood in the ruins, and the ruins mocked us. What could we have achieved, that had not been achieved to a much higher level before? What could we have made, that had not already been made, and much more competently, much more measuredly? We lacked the basic skills. We lacked the ability to write – even that. We lacked the breadth of culture, the breadth of scholarship.
But seen in another light, we discovered ourselves as outsiders, like those outsider artists who practiced their vocation outside of institutions. What we made was crude and simple, true — especially when compared to what went before – but it did have a certain power to affect. It had an urgency, a desperation, which might, perhaps, appeal to others. We were capable of only scraps and fragments, to be sure – dreck – but dreck marked by a moving sincerity.
I wondered – and this was the beginning of Spurious, the novel, and of its sequels – whether there was a way of folding this sense of posthumousness, of coming too late and lacking the old skills, into the practice of writing. Maybe it was time to come back from the desert, which had taught me only the extent and depth of my stupidity. Maybe it was time to write with a new kind of writing . . .
Biblioklept: That “sense of posthumousness, of coming too late” figures heavily in Spurious. Is Spurious the “new kind of writing” you are aiming for? While the book has a fragmentary, even elliptical quality, it also reminds me of novels in the picaresque tradition. What form does this new kind of writing you invoke take?
LI: Spurious is a book on its hands and knees. For me, it feels like the last book, the last burst of laughter before the world ends. But it also feels like the first one, because it has loosened the hold of the past. It says: a whole form of literary pretence is over.
Writing to a friend, in 1916, before the composition and publication of the work that would make him famous, the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig wrote, ‘My true book will appear only as an opus posthumum: I do not want to have to defend it or know about its “influence”’. He writes something similar, a year later, in another letter: ‘I will only truly speak after my death …, I place my entire life beneath the sign of that “posthumousness”’. Rosenzweig was confident that there would be a culture to evaluate his work. He was confident that there would be a place for his posthumous work among the greats – that there would still be greats, such that he might find his place among them. He was sure, in other words, that the old world would continue as it was; that there would still be master-works, still be the geniuses who wrote them, and still be the critics whose evaluations would be trusted by a general public.
A similar confidence in an author today would be a sign of delusion. Literature is one strand among many in our multi-braided culture. True, it retains something of its prestige; it is studied at universities, reviewed in serious newspapers — but it occupies an increasingly marginal role. The ‘great names’ are, for the most part, only cultural markers, ready for commercialisation (Kafka oven gloves in the tourist shop in Prague; the Brontë Balti House in Haworth; the Pride and Prejudice fully immersive interactive environment). But it is not only marginalisation that should be feared; recognition, too, should be. I think of the stupidity of documentary ‘infotainment’ on writers and artists, and rise of the vast, say-everything biography, that says nothing at all (as Mark Fisher has written, the biography is an end of history form, making the reassuring claim that ‘it was all about people’).
Literature continues. But it does so, in contemporary literary fiction, as a kind of empty form. As the anonymous blogger of Life Unfurnished has put it: contemporary literary fiction gives ‘the appearance alone of literature’; it is a genre ‘in which, for the writer, the sense of Writing Literature is dominant, and, for the reader, the sense of Reading Literature is dominant’.
Reviewing Jean-Luc Godard’s film Every Man For Himself, Pauline Kael writes, ‘I got the feeling that Godard doesn’t believe in anything anymore; he just wants to make movies, but maybe he doesn’t really believe in movies anymore, either’. Without agreeing with Kael’s assessment of Godard, I’d like to paraphrase her formulation: I think literary writers want to write literary fiction without believing in literature – without, indeed, believing in anything at all.
It seems to me that the literary gestures are worn out – the creation of character, plot, the contrivance of high-literary language and style as much as the avoidance of high-literary language and style, and the abandonment of most elements of the creation of character and plot. The ‘short, elliptical sentences’ of which the blogger of Life Unfurnished writes, the ‘absence of fulsome description’, the ‘signs of iconoclastic casualness’, the ‘colloquialisms’, the ‘lack of trajectory’, the ‘air of the incidental’: all are likewise exhausted.
What, then, is to be done? As writers, as readers, we are posthumous. We’ve come too late. We no longer believe in literature. Once you accept this non-belief, once you affirm it in a particular way, then something may be possible.
Witold Gombrowicz seems to advocating a return to older forms of literary insouciance: ‘Where are the good old days, when Rabelais wrote as a child might pee against a tree, to relieve himself? The old days when literature took a deep breath and created itself freely, among people, for people!’ But we cannot simply return to Rabelais, as Gombrowicz knew. Too much has happened! If a kind of self-consciousness is a distinguishing mark of the contemporary literary novelist, this is not something that can be relinquished altogether. The role of centuries of writing – of the rise of the nineteenth century bourgeois novel, of modernism and so on – must be marked.
But it can be marked by portraying our distance now from the conditions in which the great works of literature and philosophy were written. W. and Lars, the characters in Spurious, revere Rosenzweig. But this is also reverence for a culture that would deem Rosenzweig and his work important – a culture that is completely different from the one which W. and Lars occupy. True, they revere contemporary masters, too – the filmmaker Béla Tarr, for example – but Tarr lives far away, in very different conditions. W. and Lars occupy the world of the present, and the world that valued the ideas they value, the world that sustained those ideas and nurtured their production, has disappeared. Much of the humour of the book comes from the fact that its characters are men out of time – gasping in awe at Rosenzweig’s work at one moment, leafing through gossip magazines at another; proclaiming a great love of Kafka one minute, playing Doom on a mobile phone the next.
It is in this sense that there might appear to be an overlap between Spurious and novels in the picaresque tradition, which extends from sixteenth century Spain to the present day. Picaresque, it has been argued, appears as a result of a tension between an old world and a new one. The Spain of the first picaresque novels was in a period of difficult transition, from the stability of the medieval order to the age of a new, self-assertive individuality. Poverty and war were all around. The picaresque is produced in a world where human solidarity is lacking, and the individual no longer has a place in the world. The episodic journeys of the picaresque novel reflect the lack of coherence of its central characters, the lack of secure identity – a kind of cosmic loneliness.
Some picaresque features can be found in Spurious. The novel is episodic, and its characters lack a place in the world, even a place in history. W. and Lars play-pretend at various roles, trying on the mantle of the religious person or the philosophical thinker. W., in particular, yearns after friendship. But the characters are not roguish, as the picaro of a picaresque novel is supposed to be. W. is perfectly sincere. And picaros do not usually come in pairs.
Biblioklept: Speaking of your pair Lars and W., there’s a strong friendship there that strikes me as very realistic and actually quite moving. Reading Spurious I was reminded strongly of one of my own friendships, which is perhaps based on equal parts degradation and love. Lars and W. evoke both extreme pathos and a kind of deep existential anxiety that manifests in humor. Parts of Spurious read almost like verbal slapstick (if that metaphor can hold any water). How important is humor—what do you think the humor in Spurious is “doing”?
LI: Humour? I’m with Gilbert Sorrentino: ‘In a country such as ours we have reached a point at which there is hardly anything left to do but laugh or cry. It’s a kind of hysterical laughter, it’s strained and unreasoning laughter, or it is a morbid, bleak sobbing. I don’t think that anything is going to get changed in this country except that it’s going to become grimmer’.
Sorrentino’s referring to the USA, but he could just as well be referring to the UK. We lack the grounds for belief, for hope, for a future. There’s economic disaster — not simply the credit crunch, but neoliberalism in general: corporatisation, unemployment, job insecurity, casualisation, the privatisation of public utilities. Beyond this, there are the effects of climate change: drought and hunger, failure of whole nations, wars, migrants. The temptation of ‘morbid, bleak sobbing’ is extreme, as is the desire to drink oneself into oblivion like the barflies in Béla Tarr films.
Sometimes, it feels that there is an imposture in the very fact of being alive. It is as though getting out of bed in these terrible conditions were already an imposture, let alone trying to think or write. What can we do, really do, about the disaster? ‘To hope is to contradict the future’, Cioran says somewhere. Better to lie down and wait for the end. Better to give up before you begin.
‘I think joy is a lack of understanding of the situation in which we find ourselves’, Andrei Tarkovsky says, with marvellous ill-temper. And, on another occasion: ‘I accept happiness only in children and the elderly, with all others I am intolerant’. It’s true that joy and happiness seem ill-suited to our times, all the more in that joy and happiness are promoted in that ideology of positivity which is everywhere today. But perhaps there is a sense in which one might legitimately laugh at the apocalypse, albeit with what Sorrentino calls a ‘hysterical laughter’.
A sage in the Ramayana tells us that there are three things which are real: god, human folly, and laughter. ‘Since the first two surpass human comprehension’, he says, ‘we must do what we can with the third’. So we must laugh at folly, laugh at greed and smugness, opportunism and corruption, as eternal flaws in the human condition; laugh, and dream of a better world, knowing that it won’t come.
But this kind of laughter is too genial for me. It treats human folly as eternal, which I’m sure in many ways it is, but ignores suffering, dying, the real hell of our globalised world. And I worry that it also spares the one who laughs. True, you can laugh retrospectively at your own stupidities. What an idiot I was when I young!, you might say. But there is a broader sense in which we are, each of us, implicated in the present state of the world. It is our responsibility, in some important way. For me, to laugh sagely at one’s own foolishness is still too little.
What is the humour of Spurious doing, then? As many reviews of the novel have shown, the ‘verbal slapstick’ of the characters is part of a whole tradition of double acts and comic routines. I wanted W.’s insults of Lars to exhibit the same virtuosity as the physical humour of the Marx Brothers or Buster Keaton. I think there is a whole art of the insult. But I think something else is going in the novel, too.
Alenka Zupančič argues that comedies are never truly intersubjective. ‘[C]omedy is above all a dialogical genre’, she grants; but comic heroes are ‘extracted, by their passion, from the world of the normal intersubjective communication’. What they are really doing is seeking ‘to converse solely with their ‘it/id”’. Dialogues, in comedy, are really monologues; the hero is really only obsessed with his basic, chaos-ridden drives. As Zupančič suggests, ‘The comedy of such dialogues does not come from witty and clever exchanges between two subjects, or from local misunderstandings that make (comic) sense on another level of dialogue, but from the fact that the character is not really present in the dialogue he is engaged in’. On this account, the cruelty of the ‘verbal slapstick’ of the friendship in Spurious, which sees W. continually berating his poor friend, would actually be directed at W. himself. W., the only candidate for being the ‘comic hero’ of Spurious, would use Lars as merely the occasion for the continuation of his monologue.
But this interpretation doesn’t quite work for me, either. The ‘it’ that drives the exchanges of the characters is not only a feature of W.’s psychic makeup, of the chaos of his drives. Both characters are mesmerised by a real disaster. And both — particularly W. — are mesmerised by their partial responsibility for this disaster. The ‘strained and unreasoning’ laughter of Spurious is a response to the grimness of the world that is of our making.
Biblioklept: For me, that “strained and unreasoning” laughter is a big part of why I enjoyed the book—I identified with the characters. Spurious isn’t really, to borrow a phrase from David Shields, a “novelly-novel,” but it does have elements of a “novelly-novel” (including characters with whom some readers will strongly identify). At the same time, its short sections, fragmentary nature, and willingness to cite entire paragraphs of other texts point to a new kind of writing, one perhaps anchored in its origins as a blog. How did you compose Spurious? How does the novel differ from the blog?
LI: ‘A page is good only when we turn it and find life urging along …’, says one of Calvino’s characters in Our Ancestors. I hope that’s what a reader can find in Spurious: life urging along. I hope readers recognise something of their own friendships in that of W. and Lars. Spurious is not, I think, a ‘novelly-novel’. It’s new in some way – it has characters, some elements of plot, but it doesn’t resemble other books. And I think this is due to its origins. Blogging, and then combining different categories of posts, allowed me to discover, through editing, a new kind of novel.
Blogging demands immediacy. Telling the story of W. and Lars, I couldn’t rely on readers having followed it from the start. Every day, with my blog posts, I had to present these characters and their situation anew, and in a manner vivid enough to engage any potential reader. In doing so, I felt rather like the writer of a strip cartoon. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts had longer narrative arcs, but each sequence he published in daily newspapers had to stand on its own. Likewise with the posts at the blog. Each post had to have its own internal drama, a kind of ‘verbal slapstick’, even as it could be contained within a larger narrative arc.
My loyalty was, for a long time, to the readers of my blog, and I produced new material for them daily. But I thought some of the thematic strands developing at the blog – the trips to Freiburg and Dundee, for example, or the reflections on Kafka and on the Messiah – were being obscured by the quantity and disparateness of W. and Lars material. A selection had to be made. This is where the work of editing began, of the practice of literary montage that would lead to Spurious.
Tarkovsky, in his book about film, narrates the long process of assembling the various fragments that comprise the finished film, Mirror. ‘I am seeking a principle of montage which would permit me to show the subjective logic — the thought, the dream, the memory — instead of the logic of the subject’, he said. He was looking for a way to combine various elements – short narrative sequences, pieces of music and poetry, etc. – into a living whole.
I was doing the same thing, in my own way. Spurious is a hybrid of many elements of the blog. There was a story about W. and Lars, but also one about damp –– a real story, which I wrote about at the blog. I added quotations, too, as well as incorporating the narratives of the lives of various thinkers. And I edited until I felt that life was urging along.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
LI: I have thousands of pages of photocopies, which I made, full of ardour, during my first jobs as an academic. I thought I’d never get a permanent job, and wanted to make my own library of knock-off books in my rented room. Perse, Trakl, Tsvetayeva, Duras, and so many others: no printed book could mean as much to me as my annotated duplicates.